150 years on – The Battle of Königgrätz, 3 July 1866

Konnigratz
‘The Battery of the Dead’ by Carl Röchling (1855 – 1920). This picture shows the Prussian Guard overrunning Captain August von der Groeben’s so called ‘Battery of the Dead‘ at the Battle of Königgrätz, on the afternoon of 3 July 1866.

This week the military history world has been focused on the centenary commemorations for the start of the Battle of the Somme in July 1916.  Less well commemorated, or as well-known I suspect, is the fact that 3 July 2016 is the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Königgrätz (or Sadowa), itself an important and significant event, and the culmination of the short Austro-Prussian War of 1866, a war that would have a crucial role in shaping the Europe we know today.

The Austro-Prussian War, which was also known as the Seven Weeks’ War, was fought between the Austrian Empire and its German allies, and Kingdom of Prussia with its own German allies.  At the conclusion of the Napoleonic Wars in 1815 the German states were grouped in a loose confederation known as the ‘Deutscher Bund‘ and operating under Austrian leadership.  As the nineteenth century progressed the conditions developed for a unification of the German states into a single Germany. Two different views emerged as to what that unification might look like. The first was a ‘Grossdeutschland’ or greater Germany that would see a multi-national empire including Austria. The alternative a ‘Kleindeutschland’ or lesser Germany would exclude Austria and as a result would be dominated by Prussia, the largest and most powerful of the German states, unsurprisingly the latter was the preferred option in Prussia.

Bismark
Otto Von Bismarck (1 April 1815 – 30 July 1898) the architect of German Unification. This photograph was taken late in his life and had been beautifully colourised by Marina Amaral.

When Otto von Bismarck became Minister President of Prussia in 1862 he immediately began to develop a strategy for uniting Germany as a ‘Kleindeutschland’ under Prussian rule. He first raised German national consciousness by convincing Austria to join Prussia in the Second Schleswig War.  This swift and brutal conflict put the Danish provinces of Schleswig and Holstein under joint Austrian and Prussian rule. But very quickly after the conclusion of that war Bismarck provoked a further conflict over the administration of the conquered provinces, which resulted in Austria declaring war on Prussia and calling on the armies of the minor German states to join them, in what was ostensibly action by the German Confederation against Prussia to restore Prussia’s obedience to the Confederation.

The main campaign of the war took place in Bohemia (now in the Czech Republic).  The Prussian Chief of the General Staff, Helmuth von Moltke, had decided that the key to success was to ignore the minor German states allied with Austria, and instead concentrate on decisively defeating Austria itself.  He planned the war in meticulous detail, rapidly mobilising the Prussian Army and advanced across the border into Saxony and Bohemia in June 1866 to confront the Austrian Army, which was concentrating for an invasion of Silesia. Moving rapidly, the Prussian forces were divided into three armies: The Army of the Elbe under General Karl Eberhard Herwarth von Bittenfeld, the First Army under Prince Friedrich Karl, and the Second Army under Crown Prince Friedrich Wilhelm. All were under the nominal command of Prussia’s King Wilhelm I, but in reality operational command sat with von Moltke.  As the armies advanced, each on their own axis, they overcame Austrian attempts to stop them and by 2 July the main Austria Army had been sighted, encamped on high ground between the towns of Königgrätz and Sadowa.

Von Moltke immediately saw the opportunity to encircle the Austrians. He gave orders for Prince Friedrich Karl and the First Army to move forward and in conjunction with the Army of the Elbe to attack the Austrian positions across the Bistritz River the following day, 3 July 1866.  He also ordered the Second Army, at this time some way off to the North East, to move in support with the aim of surrounding the Austrian forces.  

KG Map Morning
The morning’s actions at Königgrätz. Map taken from Gordon A. Craig’s excellent book ‘The Battle of Königgrätz: Prussia’s Victory over Austria, 1866’ (University of Pennsylvania Press, Philadelphia, 1964.)

Moltke had intended the battle to be a textbook ‘pocket battle’ in which he would encircle and destroy the Austrian Army, but the weather on 3 July almost ruined his plans.  As the First Army and the Army of the Elbe approached they were caught in the heavy rain and arrived wet and exhausted. Meanwhile the Second Army did not reach the field until late afternoon. The Austria commander, Ludwig von Benedek, therefore had the advantage of numerical superiority for much of the day with his 240,000 troops actually only facing 135,000 Prussians. Unfortunately for Austria he did not exploit this advantage.

Bayonet Charge by Prussians at the Battle of Sadowa
An etching showing Prussian infantry charging Austrian troops at bayonet point.

The initial Prussian attacks came from the Army of the Elbe in the West and the First Army in the North West.  In the West the early attacks were successful and the Saxon Army Corps holding this portion of the Austrian defensive line were pushed back.  They withdrew to new defensive positions and once there started to pour heavy fire on the Prussians bringing them to a standstill.  Further north the Prussian forces started well and made good progress and an hour into the battle the town of Sadowa was taken, but soon afterwards the advance began to slow down under heavy Austrian fire. A considerable amount of this was coming from a wooded area called the Sweipwald in which Austrian troops were concealed.  The Prussians attacked and the wood was cleared.  The Austrians counter-attacked but their efforts were uncoordinated and confused allowing the Prussians to decimate the disorientated columns of Austrian infantry moving in and out of the wood.  The Austrian position was not helped by paralysis, indecision and confusion amongst the Austrian command. Benedek stopped an attempt by a subordinate (General Anton von Mollinary) to swing the Austrian Army’s right wing forward to encircle the two Prussian armies at Sadowa before the arrival of the third, losing a valuable opportunity and creating chaos in the field.

KG Map Afternoon
The afternoon’s actions at Königgrätz. Map taken from Gordon A. Craig’s excellent book ‘The Battle of Königgrätz: Prussia’s Victory over Austria, 1866’ (University of Pennsylvania Press, Philadelphia, 1964.)

Aided by Benedek’s inaction, Moltke had time to wait for the arrival of the Prussian Second Army which he was finally able to commit late in the afternoon and it struck Benedek’s weak right flank.  With the assault now on all sides the Austrian Army began to disintegrate.  Gallant but futile rearguard actions took place to slow the Prussian advance.  One lone horse artillery battery, under the command of Captain August von der Groeben, tried to stem the Prussian advance. Its desperate salvos were answered with crippling Prussian fire from all sides and within five minutes Groeben, 53 men and 68 horses were all dead. This was followed by the Austrian cavalry which charged into the pursuing Prussians.  For half an hour the they succeeded in holding the Prussian cavalry and pushing their infantry back, which, combined with the continuing Austrian artillery fire, convinced Von Moltke that he may had underestimated Benedek.  With his reserves of infantry and cavalry stuck on muddy approach roads behind the lines, Moltke did not have the resources to complete the encirclement at Königgrätz and stopped the pursuit. The Austrian cavalry broke off at this point and the battle ended at 9pm.

Königgrätz - Hunten
‘Battle of Königgrätz 1866’ by Emil Hünten (1827-1902) The picture depicts King Wilhelm I awarding his son, the Crown Prince Friedrich Wilhelm, the Order Pour le Mérite after the Prussian victory under Chief of Staff Helmuth von Moltke, who can be seen on the left side. © Deutsches Historisches Museum, Berlin

Most of Benedek’s army escaped across the Elbe in the night, but the Austrian losses were high – 44,000 men in the course of the day, compared with Prussian losses of just 9,000. The Austrian Army that retreated to Vienna was very weakened and the Austrian emperor had no option but to agree to an armistice on 22 July 1866, and three weeks later sued for peace. Bismarck used the victory to further his ambitions, abolishing the German Confederation and forming the North German Federation that excluded Austria and her allies in Germany. Its position as the dominant power in continental Europe was confirmed five years later with an emphatic victory in the Franco-Prussian War and the resulting unification into a united Germany.

Today Königgrätz is a fascinating battlefield to visit.  Situated 125km to the East of Prague in the Czech Republic, it is about an hour and a half drive from the centre of the Czech capital.  The battlefield is relatively undeveloped and one can very quickly gain an understanding of the terrain and the flow of the battle. There is a small museum and visitor centre that provides useful orientation and an observation tower.  These are both located together just outside the village of Chlum, right at the heart of the battlefield and on its highest spot. The tower affords panoramic views of the area and from which one can appreciate the scale of the battle and the influence of the terrain.

Panorama Lookimh East
A panoramic view from the Chlum observation tower looking East.  In the foreground is the museum and visitor centre.  In the centre, on the right edge of the woods, is the memorial to the ‘Battery of the Dead‘.  The attack of the Prussian Second Army swept in from the left hand edge of this view.

The actions of many regiments and individuals are marked with memorials across the battlefield.  These include a monument erected at the location where Captain August von der Groeben and his ‘Battery of the Dead‘ conducted their heroic but doomed rearguard action.

Dead Memorial
The Battery of The Dead Memorial unveiled in October 1893. Captain von der Groeben and his horse battery of eight Groeben’s guns were placed North-West of Chlum facing the Sweipwald. In mid-afternoon of 3 July 1866 the battery tried to hold off a flanking attack by the Prussian guards before rapid and heavy fire silenced the guns. Groeben, 53 other officers and men, and 68 horses were killed. 

The Sweipwald is full of memorials to both sides, placed here both by regiments in memory of fallen comrades and families for loved one.  As one walks through the woods it is easy to envisage how this part of the field became a bloody killing ground as the combat ebbed and flowed. But today it is peaceful and serene, and judging by my experience very little visited, as we were the only people in the woods on a fine July afternoon last year!

Sweipwald Memorials
Some of the many monuments and memorials in the now tranquil Sweipwald.

The impact of this battle was felt long after it finished.  Bismarck’s vision of a dominant and imperial Germany of course came to fruition, and ultimately led to Germany’s role in helping to start the First World War, the legacy of which had a continuing impact throughout the subsequent history of the twentieth century.  It is perhaps worth reflecting on what might have happened had there been an Austrian victory on 3 July 1866.  Would it have resulted in a ‘Grossdeutschland’ that would have joined the German states in a less aggressive and less martial multi-national Empire, leading to a more peaceful Europe and avoiding the two world wars of the twentieth century?  This is of course speculation but what is very clear is how important this short war, and the little known battle of Königgrätz were in actually shaping the European history we know today.

The First World War on your doorstep

Machine Gun Corps Training
Troops of the Motor Machine Gun Corps training February 1916. ©IWM (Q 53896)

The First World War saw some 8.7 million men serve in the British Army at some point during the conflict.  Of those, 5.4 million served on the Western Front (France and Flanders), which is where I suspect most people think of these men spending their time.  But of course before they even got across the Channel a huge effort was necessary to recruit, mobilise and train such an army.  Today the British Army is heading for a regular strength of 80,000, a tiny proportion of that First World organisation, yet I suspect that we all know of a military barracks in our local area and are aware of military activity. Thus imagine a one-hundred fold increase to the number of men under arms and the impact on the country’s infrastructure and landscape.  Military camps and training areas grew up all over the country to cope with this expansion, and I will return to these shortly.

The First World War saw a step change in the manner in which war was conducted.  Many will argue that it was the first industrial war; I might counter that by suggesting that the roots of the industrialisation of warfare were planted some fifty years earlier with the American Civil War, but that is a different debate.  What is clear from the First World War is that many of the technologies that had been emerging over the previous fifty years came together with deadly efficiency during the conflict. The trench stalemate on the Western Front is usually put down to a combination of three things. First, the very effective defensive technology and techniques employed to create the trenches, and the use of barbed wire to make No Man’s Land impossible to cross safely. Second, the wholesale availability of tinned rations which meant that soldiers could occupy these defensive positions for weeks and month without having to forage off the land as they had in previous campaigns. And finally the rise of rapid firing weaponry making venturing into No Man’s Land a perilous activity. Crucial amongst this weaponry was the machine gun.

Maxim Plaque
A blue plaque at 57 Hatton Garden, London, where Hiram Maxim set up his workshops on his arrival in Britain in 1881, and where he designed his famous machine gun.

The first self-powered (recoil operated) machine gun had been invented in 1883 by Hiram Maxim (an American who moved to Britain in 1881).  He conducted practical demonstrations in 1884, and his Maxim Gun was used by the British Army on colonial operations from 1893.  In 1912 an improved version of his gun was produced by the Vickers  Company and adopted by the British Army.  It would remain in use through both World Wars finally being withdrawn from service in 1968.

Although having been around for some years, the machine gun really came to the fore in the First World War.  At the start of the War all British Army infantry battalions were equipped with a machine gun section of two guns and this was increased to four in February 1915, as a result of the experience of combat in the early battles. But this experience also highlighted the need for bespoke tactics and organisation in order to make the most effective use of the weapon. As a result, in November 1914 a Machine Gun School at established in Wisques in France to train officers and machine gunners. This served two immediate purposes.  First, to replace those personnel trained to use machine guns who had been killed or wounded, and second to increase the number of men with machine gun skills.

men-of-the-machine-gun-corps-at-drill1
Machine Gun Corps personnel undergoing training during the First World War.

In September 1915 the War Office considered a plan to create a single specialist Machine Gun Company per infantry brigade, by withdrawing the machine guns and associated teams from the battalions, with the aim of fully exploiting this new technology. In order to give the battalions firepower they would be issued with the lighter and more portable Lewis machine gun. The plan was approved, the Machine Gun Corps was created in October 1915, and the companies formed in each brigade transferred into to the newly formed Corps. The reorganisation was rapid and was completed by the start of the Battle of the Somme in July 1916.  By the end of the war a total of 170,500 officers and men served in the Machine Gun Corps, of whom 62,049 were killed, wounded or missing.

In order to train and prepare these troops a Base Depot for the Corps was established at Camiers in France and a Machine Gun Training Centre was also established at Belton Park near Grantham in Lincolnshire, and it is this latter location that I will now focus upon.

Belton Camp Aerial
An aerial view of Belton Park Camp during the First World War.

The camp at Belton Park came in to being shortly after the start of the First World War when the owner of Belton House, Earl Brownlow, offered the use of Belton Park to the War Office.  A camp was begun in September 1914, firstly tented but very soon purpose built wooden huts were erected.  

Belton Military Camp
A wartime picture of Belton Park Camp showing the wooden huts and rolling stock for the camp’s own railway line.

These burgeoned and the camp became a small town. It had some 840 wooden huts of which 500 were barrack rooms giving it a capacity of about 12,000 men and additional accommodation for officers, although some sources do suggest that the capacity could have been up to 20,000.  It had its own 670 bed military hospital, 5 church rooms, 3 YMCA huts for recreation, a post office, a cinema and its own railway line.  The map below gives an overview, but a more detailed sheet is available from the Belton House website

Belton Map
A map showing Belton Park Camp and giving an idea of its scale.

The camp was initially occupied by troops of the 11th (Northern) Division, then by Pals battalion from Liverpool and Manchester who were part of the 30th Division, before finally becoming the Machine Gun Corps Training Centre on 18 October 1915 when Brigadier General Henry Cecil de la Montague Hill CB CMG took command of the camp.  By November he had 230 officers, 3,123 men, 163 guns, 4 wagons and 60 cooks on site. The camp remained in place throughout the war and was eventually dismantled in 1920.

img_0617
One of the three YMCA recreation huts in Belton Park Camp.

Today it is almost impossible to realise that such a huge encampment existed at Belton Park, unless you know about it.  With the dismantling of the camp the land returned to its original use as the deer park for Belton House, and in the ensuing one hundred years almost all evidence of the camp has disappeared. Over the last few years, particularly with the First World War Centenary upon us, some interest has been rekindled in the site. In 2012 Episode 259 of the Channel 4 series ‘Time Team’ conducted an investigation on the site.   The National Trust, today’s guardian of Belton Park, has also undertaken some investigative work to help interpret the scale and size of the camp.

Belton from Belmont Pano
The current view over the area occupied by Belton Park Camp.  The avenue of trees in the centre extends to Belton House and the open areas on either side would have been covered in wooden huts during the First World War.

I personally found out about this camp some years ago and have wandered over the landscape a number of times.  There are just the odd clues to the camp if one looks carefully.  The most obvious of these is a water tank, sited on top of the hill overlooking the camp site, and sitting alongside a much more prominent 18th Century folly.  Constructed as part of the infrastructure to support the camp this simple round tank is one of the last remaining pieces of physical evidence of the camp.

Belton Watertank
One of the few remaining pieces of Belton Park Camp, a water tank overlooking the park which, one hundred years ago, would have been covered on wooden huts and alive with the sound of military training.

As a result it is difficult these days, as one walks in the tranquil park land, to imagine the frenetic building that went on to construct the camp, and then the day to day noise and activity of thousands of soldiers undertaking training.  The sounds of vehicles, horses, the shouting of orders and the rattle of gunfire as hundreds of machine guns were fired on the ranges purposely built for the job, (the target butts for which now form part of the local golf course) must have been constant.

Slide1
Two memorials to the Machine Gun Corps.  Left, a stone tablet on the Lion Gates entrance to Belton Park, Grantham, Lincolnshire.  Right, a modern memorial, based on the Machine Gun Corps cap badge, in Grantham’s Wyndham Park, erected in 2014.

With the dismantling of the camp the town of Grantham returned to peace and quiet, although it has become the home to a number of memorials to the Machine Gun Corps.  The parish church of St Wulfram houses a memorial plaque and book of remembrance, whilst there is a stone tablet commemorating all members of the Machine Gun Corps on Belton Park’s Lion Gates. Finally in 2014 a new memorial, based on the badge of the Machine Gun Corps, was unveiled in Grantham’s Wyndham Park.

Now this story is of course not just about Grantham and its experience of the First World War, nor is it solely about the Machine Gun Corps, there is a wider point here.  It wasn’t just Belton Park that experienced this phenomenon.  There were hundreds of establishments growing up all over the country to house the rapid and enormous expansion of the British Army that took place in the first year of the War, and to deal with the casualties as they returned home. From Salisbury Plain to Cannock Chase, and from Manchester’s Heaton Park to as far away as Stobs Camp outside Hawick in Scotland, military establishments grew up all over the country.  As I postulated at the start of this blog post, it is often easy to overlook the physical impact of the First World War at home, when the scale and horror of the Western Front (or the other theatres of war for that matter) dominate our First World War history and memory.  Thus in this period of centenary commemorations it is interesting, and appropriate, to reflect on how this huge military footprint stretched right across Britain and the impact it had on the local economy, population and landscape throughout the country.

Stow Maries: An evocative tribute to First World War aviation.

Aircraft Stow Maries
Aircraft on the ground and in the air at Stow Maries Great War Aerodrome.

One hundred years ago a new threat to the United Kingdom was forcing the Government to introduce new measures to defend the country.  From early 1915 German airships had been attacking and, whilst the casualties were very low compared to those that would be experienced in the ‘Blitz’ of the Second World War, this new form of warfare was causing alarm and fear amongst the population.  In response to this unrest, in late 1915, a number of new Home Defence Squadrons began to be formed with the aim of providing a dedicated force of aircraft to defend the country’s eastern approaches.  These squadrons, eleven in all, began to come into operation from January 1916.  One of these squadrons, 37 (Home Defence) Squadron Royal Flying Corps, was formed in September 1916 with its headquarters at Woodham Mortimer and its three flights located at three separate, and newly built, aerodromes in Essex: Rochford, Stow Maries and Goldhanger.   Its mission was to provide air defence on the eastern approaches to London.

Air Raid Damage 1917
Firemen hose down the smouldering remains of Cox’s Court off Little Britain in the City of London after a Gotha air raid on 7 July 1917. © IWM (HO 77)

The aerodrome at Stow Maries, the home of 37 Squadron’s B Flight, was initially under the command of Lieutenant Claude Ridley who, at 19 years of age, was already a decorated veteran of the Royal Flying Corps with a Military Cross and a Distinguished Service Order to his name. Under his command the first aircraft (rather inadequate BE12s) arrived at Stow Maries in October 1916 and the station became operational in May 1917. At its height the station was manned by 219 personnel of whom 16 were aircrew, with the rest supporting staff (of whom about 20 were female). During its operational period from May 1917 to May 1918, 81 operational sorties were flown from Stow Maries to intercept airships, Gotha and Giant bombers. By the summer of 1918 the Germans were being driven back on mainland Europe and were no longer able to threaten the United Kingdom from the air.  As a result Stow Maries, now a station belonging to the newly formed Royal Air Force, re-roled to provide a training and support function until 1919 when, as part of post-war rationalisation, the squadron was relocated to RAF Biggin Hill. At that point Stow Maries aerodrome went back to agricultural use, although very importantly the buildings constructed to house 37 Squadron remained.

The site operated as a farm for the next 70 years until one of those fortunate circumstances occurred.  It was put up for sale and by luck spotted by Russell Savory who was looking for somewhere as business premises.  Immediately seeing the potential to return the site to its Great War heyday, in 2009 he and his business partner bought it. He then encouraged the formation of the Stow Maries Great War Aerodrome Trust (SMGWAT), which in 2013 purchased the site and began the difficult and mammoth job of its restoration and development as a heritage attraction telling the story of its days as a Great War aerodrome.

Stow Maries Museum 1
The museum houses tableaux showing the living and working conditions in wartime Stow Maries.

Last week I had the great pleasure to attend the launch of a new flagship museum at Stow Maries.  Funded by monies given by the Government from the fines imposed on the banking sector, the museum was opened by the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport (and interestingly the local MP for Maldon and Chelmsford East) John Whittingdale. The museum marks the start of what augers to be a bright future for the site that will see its transformation from a set of derelict, and for years neglected, wartime buildings into a sympathetically restored homage to First World War aviation.

The museum, housed in the old workshop building, has been professionally designed, but has been constructed by some of the SMGWAT’s band of enthusiastic volunteers.  The result is an excellent scene-setter for anyone visiting the site.  On arrival one is met with a small shop and admissions area that are fresh and well-organised. The museum proper starts with an introduction to the air war conducted during the First World War with a particular emphasis on the air defence of London and its eastern approaches.  This sets the scene and explains the reason for Stow Maries existence. It clearly outlines the threat from the various types of airship and aircraft, and culminates in a tableau showing a life-sized section of a German Gotha, complete with crew, flying over London. The latter is supported by a very informative interactive that shows the location of various bombing raids on London and their impact.

Stow Maries Museum 4
Wartime Stow Maries had its own complement of WRAF personnel who are also represented in the museum’s displays.

In parallel to the ‘bigger picture’ story, the role played by Stow Maries is also told – how it was established, its personnel and their roles.  These include the aircrew, the ground crew and the female personnel.  There is also a section on aircraft design and construction that graphically illustrates just how flimsy and dangerous these fighters from the First World War were.  This is reinforced by the wartime casualty figures of 37 Squadron.  Of the ten aircrew killed during the Squadron’s operational period, eight died as a result of flying accidents!  In short the content of the museum tells a wonderful evocative story of Stow Maries and its contribution, set within the context of the air defence of the United Kingdom during the period.

Stow Maries Museum 2
The exhibition covers the problems and challenges of building and maintaining the rudimentary aircraft flown by the Royal Flying Corps and later the newly formed Royal Air Force.

Elsewhere on the site other buildings have, or are being, restored, in order to gradually bring the whole site to life.  The Airmen’s Mess is now resplendent in its wartime glory and serves refreshments for visitors.  The Squadron Offices tell the story of 37 Squadron and other buildings are in the process of being stabilised and restored, as and when finances are available.

The other big draw at Stow Maries are its flying days, when vintage and reproduction aircraft of the period fly over the aerodrome.  To support the opening event we were treated to a display of flying. Standing on the aircraft line with a whole array of period aircraft lined up on the ground, with another in the air, transported the audience back to Stow Maries’ Great War heyday. And it has, like so many heritage sites, that intangible but spine-tingling sense of place.  You can feel that you are standing in the ground where one hundred years ago young men, many still teenagers, got into aircraft that were made of wood and flimsy canvas, and flew them sometimes as high as 10,000 feet in order to engage and shoot down enemy airships and aircraft.  To stand beside reproductions of these aircraft today the prospect of doing so is terrifying, yet these men did this and ultimately contributed to the defence of the nation.

Aircraft Line
An impressive aircraft line up by the airfield at Stow Maries

The work being done at Stow Maries, like so many other projects of this nature, began as a mission to save decaying and unloved heritage from disappearing forever.  With that initial threat now removed the task for the SMGWAT is to restore and make this fascinating site even more accessible.  But also to continue to tell how Stow Maries played its small but important part in the bigger story of the development of the air defence of the United Kingdom, and ultimately the formation of the Royal Air Force.

 

 

 

 

 

 

An uncertain future for the home of the ‘Secret Listeners’

Trent Park Camp, gefangene deutsche Offiziere
German Senior Officers at Trent Park, November 1944 ©Bundesarchiv

Wars produce innovation and ingenuity in all sorts of shapes and guises. During the Second World War this was particularly so, and as a result we have probably all heard of radar, bouncing bombs and swimming tanks.  Most people these days will also have heard, despite many years of secrecy, of the innovative approaches adopted at Bletchley Park to gather vital signals intelligence from Germany and its allies.  However, I suspect fewer people will be aware of another piece of unusual and innovative intelligence gathering that went on during the War.

Right at the start of the Second World War an organisation was set up that would become known as the Combined Services Detailed Interrogation Centre (CSDIC).  Its purpose was to interrogate enemy prisoners of war.  It was run by an organisation called MI19 and led by a man with extensive experience in intelligence operations, Lieutenant Colonel Thomas Kendrick.  The organisation was initially located in the Tower of London, but soon moved to Trent Park in Cockfosters in the north-west London suburbs. Initially any prisoner, regardless of rank, who the authorities thought might have useful intelligence was sent to Trent Park.  Whilst incarcerated, unbeknownst to them, they were being listened to via microphones ingeniously concealed about the property.  Encouraged by ruses such as manufactured magazines and newspapers with leading articles, the prisoners were induced to talk to each other whilst all the time being overheard by ‘secret listeners’ based in the cellars of the house.  These listeners were mostly German exiles (many Jewish) who then translated and relayed the content of the conversations.  These conversations in turn provided interesting and useful intelligence.

Trent_Park_House,_London_N14_-_geograph.org.uk_-_1671443
Trent Park today ©Christine Matthews

In 1942 the success of this operation meant that two further facilities were created, one at Wilton Park in Beaconsfield, the other at Latimer in Chesham.  This also brought a refined focus for Trent Park where the population became very high powered with the main inmates being senior officers and generals.  The activities undertaken in all three houses were of great value.  Lulled into a false sense of security by their comfortable surroundings, the prisoners revealed all sorts of intelligence.  But it was probably Trent Park, with its population of senior German officers, that revealed the most.  When they let their guard slip the conversations amongst themselves revealed secrets of invaluable use to the Allies.

secret listener 001
A wartime picture of a ‘secret listener’ at work in Trent Park. ©Helen Fry

They overheard conversations as early as May 1943, that confirmed that Germany was developing the V-2 rocket at Peenemünde and which led to the bombing of this site in August of the same year.  Other conversations gave clear evidence of the atrocities that were being committed against the Jews.  In short these facilities, and especially Trent Park, were a key elements in the complex and highly successful Allied intelligence gathering machinery developed in the Second World War.  And like most of its counterparts, such as Bletchley Park, the full story of what happened at Trent Park was not known until fairly recently. As a result, and again like Bletchley Park, those who occupied the buildings after the War had no idea of the historical importance of the places they were in.

Post-war Trent Park was taken over by the Ministry of Education and initially became a teacher training college, before becoming part of Middlesex Polytechnic (later Middlesex University).  It was then sold to a Malaysia education institution in 2013 which, shortly afterwards, went into liquidation.  Finally it was acquired by a property development company who are working on plans for the site.  These plans currently include an intent to turn over part of the site to a museum telling the story of the Second World War activities conducted at Trent Park, although there is concern that this museum will not do justice to the fascinating story.

This week I had the opportunity to meet with a couple of people, Dr Helen Fry and Councillor Jason Charalambous, who are spearheading the campaign to try to make sure that any museum at Trent Park does indeed fully represent and commemorate the work undertaken there during the Second World War.  Helen is an author and historian who has written about Trent Park (her book The M Room: Secret Listeners who Bugged the Nazis in WW2 was published in 2012), whilst Jason is a local resident and councillor.

Trent Park Team
Councillor Jason Charalambous and Dr Helen Fry, standing outside the recently restored Hut 3, on their visit to Bletchley Park.

I met Helen and Jason at Bletchley Park in order to share with them the journey Bletchley Park had gone on in its transformation from a set of largely derelict buildings to the successful heritage attraction it is today.  It was clear that there are parallels between the process that Bletchley Park has gone through and that which they are on at Trent Park.  They updated me on their campaign to Save Trent Park, and they have made an impressive start.  There is a petition organised, a Facebook page and an active Twitter presence @SaveTrentPark.  There is also an ongoing dialogue with the developer to try to shape the plans to meet everyone’s needs.

But I wanted to understand what could be saved and how it could be made accessible and engaging to the public.  The campaign’s online petition states as its first aim:

 ‘…the establishment of a museum across the entire ground floor and relevant rooms of the basement of the mansion house highlighting the crucial role it played in WWII…’

Whilst the developer has indicated that they are prepared to accommodate some form of museum in the main Grade II listed building the current conflict is over how much of the building should be made available to the general public. The campaigners are arguing that the cellars (pictured below) where the ‘secret listeners’ operated should be preserved and interpreted for visitors.  This seems a relatively easy and non-contentious step, and it is not difficult to envisage how some imaginative and engaging audio-visual interpretation and set dressing could turn this area into an atmospheric experience.

Trent Park basement cellars
The cellars at Trent Park, where the ‘secret listeners’ worked in the Second World War, as they are today. ©Helen Fry

The more controversial element of the campaign is over control of the whole of the ground floor of the mansion house, as I suspect that will also be prime real estate for the developer.  As Helen and Jason very clearly articulated, the ground floor of the Trent Park mansion building also has great historic significance.  In one room Thomas Kendrick had his office, in others the German inmates lived and interacted, and in doing so revealed their secrets.  There are also other elements in the ground floor rooms that would merit saving such as some rare Rex Whistler murals. In short much more of the main building is of historic value than the developers currently appear to be willing to make available for use as a museum.

The passion of the campaigners is clear and the story they wish to tell is one that is well worth telling.  Like other Second World War sites such as the Churchill War Rooms in Whitehall, Bletchley Park or the Western Approaches Museum in Liverpool, what Trent Park has is that sense of place.  That sense that you can stand somewhere and feel the history, and that you can walk in the footprints of the people who made it.  Thus whilst developers need to get a return on their investment, and as a nation we need more housing, it would be nice to think that an accommodation could be brokered at Trent Park. This might then allow important parts of the site to be preserved and interpreted so that generations to come can marvel at the innovation and ingenuity that this nation showed in gathering intelligence during some of its darkest days.

Review: Redlegs

Redlegs
The front cover of this new edition of John P. Langellier’s ‘Redlegs’.

This book is a re-issue of a title that first appeared in 1998, and is part of Pen & Sword’s G.I. series about the American soldier, his uniforms and equipment.  The blurb for this book is as follows:

“This volume examines a much-neglected aspect of American military history – the U.S Army artillerymen, named redlegs after the red stripe on their trousers. Artillery was a vital arm and proved its worth in diverse theatres of war. The photographs, most of them rarely seen in other sources, range from the Civil War and the campaigns against the American Indians through to the Spanish-American War.”

The first thing to say is that despite the typo on the front cover which states the period covered by the book to be 1861-1869, it does in fact cover the period 1861-1898!  Second this is a book about the U.S. Army’s artillerymen and not about their weapons. If one is after a detailed exposition on ordnance and ammunition, then this is not the book to consult. The development of the weaponry and its employment is covered in a brief four page overview at the start of this book which really just sets the scene and explains what the U.S. Army’s artillery was doing during the period concerned.  The bulk of the book is actually about the soldiers themselves and is profusely illustrated with a fascinating range of pictures and photographs, both colour and black and white, which show the soldiers in their uniforms and some detailed illustrations of particular items.  The book is very well produced and does justice to the subject matter.

As the blurb rightly suggests some of these illustrations appear to be quite rare and give an interesting insight into how the uniforms and personal equipment of this branch of the U.S. Army developed.  It also reminds us how the business of the U.S. Army changed over this short thirty seven year period, as a direct reflection of the process of nation building that was going on in the United States.  At the start of the period the United States was on the brink of tearing itself apart in a bloody civil war, the outcome of which had the galvanising effect of creating the strong nation we now know.  By the end of the period we see a country that is flexing its muscle and creating its own sphere of influence both in its immediate vicinity in the Caribbean and across the Pacific in the Philippines.  The illustrations in this book tracks the impact of this change on the U.S .Army, as the uniforms and equipment developed from those appropriate to fighting the rather Napoleonic battles of the American Civil War to the much more ‘modern’ battle tactics used in the Spanish-American War.  The latter brought the need to dress and equip the troops in an expeditionary force to work in the somewhat different climatic conditions and environments of the Caribbean and the Philippines, and this is also well-illustrated.

In short this is an interesting book that covers its subject matter well. Its appeal, like most of Pen & Sword’s titles, will be to a specialist audience, who like me have an interest in this period of history and/or military uniforms of the time.

Paperback
Pages: 72
Pen & Sword Military
Published: 4 February 2016

 

 

The battle that began the shaping of modern Europe

Danish 8th Brigade at the Battle of Dybbøl 1864 V2
The Danish 8th Brigade about to charge at the Battle of Dybbøl 18 April 1864 by Vilhelm Rosenstand

One hundred and fifty two years ago this week a battle was fought that brought to an end a month-long siege, and ultimately led to the end of a short and brutal war, the consequences of which were to have a profound impact on the future of Europe.  Indeed it could be argued that consequences of this little war were still being felt a hundred years later at the height of the Cold War.  The war in question was the Second Schleswig War (or Danish-Prussian War) of 1864, and the siege that of Dybbøl (2 – 18 April 1864).

I only became aware of this little war and the siege of Dybbøl a couple of years ago when I was researching the Austro-Prussian War and the Battle of Koniggratz (3 July 1866) ahead of a visit to the Czech Republic. I read Quintin Barry’s excellent book The Road to Koniggratz: Helmuth Von Moltke and the Austro-Prussian War 1866 in which he covers both the Second Schleswig War and the Austro-Prussian War of 1866 in great detail. For a variety of reasons including the comparisons between these wars and my favourite period of military history, the American Civil War, I delved deeper and the more I looked the more I was intrigued.

The Second Schleswig War was the first of the three wars of German Unification, the others being the Austro-Prussian (or Seven Weeks War) of 1866 and the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71. These together led to the formation of a strong and unified Germany in 1871.  A Germany which would then arguably become the central and dominant force in the shaping of modern Europe.

When the Second Schleswig War began in late 1863 to many it was just the latest episode in an ongoing issue known as the ‘Schleswig Holstein Question’. In his 1921 book Queen Victoria the British biographer Lytton Strachey referred to the situation as:

“…the dreadful Schleswig-Holstein question—the most complex in the whole diplomatic history of Europe…”

Whilst the great British statesman Lord Palmerston is alleged to have said:

“The Schleswig-Holstein question is so complicated, only three men in Europe have ever understood it. One was Prince Albert, who is dead. The second was a German professor who became mad. I am the third and I have forgotten all about it.”

Jutland_Peninsula_map
The Jutland Peninsula showing the duchies of Schleswig and Holstein, the Danevirke and Dybbøl. – commons.wikipedia.org

The spark for this episode came just after the accession of King Christian IX to the throne of Denmark and, as was custom, his simultaneously becoming Duke of Schleswig and Holstein. Shortly after acceding to the throne he was persuaded by the Danish Parliament to sign a new Danish constitution (the so called November Constitution) that stated that the Duchy of Schleswig was part of Denmark.  This put Denmark squarely in conflict with the German Confederation who saw this as a breach of the London Protocol of 1852 that decreed that the Kingdom of Denmark and the duchies of Schleswig and Holstein would remain separate entities. Despite diplomatic efforts to reverse the constitutional changes no progress was made and on the instructions of Prussian Minister President, Otto von Bismarck, a combined Prussian and Austrian force crossed the border into Schleswig on 1 February 1864 with the intent of occupying the duchy and restoring its separation from Denmark.

Ahead of the invasion the Danish Army had taken up defensive positions along an ancient earthwork called the Danevirke.

Danevirke
A period view of the Danevirke drawn in 1863 – ©Rigsarkivet – Danish National Archives

But this position was untenable and therefore on 5 February 1864, just before they were about to be outflanked by the German forces, the Danes withdraw to new positions further north.  The army split into two smaller forces with one deploying to the northern end of the Jutland, whilst the other was ordered east to occupy the defensive forts on the peninsula opposite Sønderborg in the area of Dybbøl. The withdrawal was a miserable affair conducted through February blizzards, but in four days the larger part of the Danish Army was in its new defensive line at Dybbøl.

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The Danish withdrawal from the Danevirke. ©1864.dk

It is worth highlighting at this point that the German Confederation Forces had a significant technological advantage.  The Prussian forces, but not the Austrians, had adopted the next generation of rifle.  The Dreyse needle gun, one of the first breech loading bolt-action rifles to be used in combat, was introduced to the Prussian Army from 1848. The rifle allowed a soldier to fire five or more shots a minute from the prone position and not have to stand up to reload, therefore reducing the exposure to enemy fire.  In contrast the Danes were armed with muzzle-loading rifle that had to be reloaded in a vulnerable standing position and could probably only manage two shots a minute.  The Prussian were also superior to the Danes in artillery.  The Danes used old smooth bore cannon, whilst the Prussians had rifled artillery capable of much greater range.  

On arriving in the Dybbøl positions, work was immediately undertaken to reinforce the existing fortifications which, as can be seen from the map below, were extensive and effectively sealed off the peninsula opposite Sønderborg.  Fortunately for the Danes their surprise withdrawal had caught the Prussians off-guard and their follow up was somewhat tardy. But by mid-March the Prussians had decided that the Dybbøl position was to be their main effort and siege artillery was moved forward to start the bombardment of the Danish positions. At the same time they started to invest the position by digging their own entrenchments.  At the end of March an ambitious amphibious operation was planned and prepared, with the aim of taking the Danish fortifications from the rear, but this was called off at the last moment due to storms. Instead at the start of April the Prussians began to use their superiority in artillery to bombard the Danish positions, and at the same time began to dig forward from their own lines towards the Danish forts.

Dybbol Large
The Battle of Dybbøl 18 April 1864 ©Rigsarkivet – Danish National Archives

This parallel set of activities continued for over two weeks until the Prussian trenches were as close as possible to the Danish lines and the Danish troops had been worn down by an almost constant bombardment, during which it is estimated that about 65,000 shells were fired at the fortifications.  On 16 April 1864 the Prussians had almost 40,000 troops in the lines opposite the Danish positions and 10,000 were readied to be the first assault wave of an attack scheduled for 18 April.

At about 4am on 18 April 1864 a massive and intense bombardment of the Danish forts was launched which lasted for six hours.  Then at 10am the bombardment ceased and assault troops who had been moved forward t0 the Prussian front line trenches charged towards the Danish lines, in an attack that presaged the First World War some fifty years later.

The Prussians outnumbered the Danish troops in the frontline trenches and redoubts by two to one, and by 10.22am the forts were captured.  British Special Correspondent Edward Dicey who was covering the war for the Daily Telegraph was in a position to watch the Prussians force the Danes out of the fortifications and in his book on the war he reported:

‘I took my post of observation on a ridge commanding a full view of Dybbøl Hill. The facts that I have mentioned were not known to me then. All I could tell was that things were going badly for the besieged. The brow of the hill was lined with dark masses of troops too close and too serried to belong to the Danes. With my fieldglass I could see the Prussian flag waving gaily from the heights; and it was clear, from the crowds of soldiers standing on the bastions of Fort No. 4, that there, at least, the fighting had ceased. Along the broad, bare, shelter less roads, leading from the brow of the hill to the bridges, dark lines of infantry were retreating hastily, and their columns were raked constantly by shells thrown from the field batteries, which the Prussians were bringing up with all speed to the line of Dybbøl . It looked to me, standing there, as if their own guns had been turned against the Danes, but this I believe was not the case, as very few of those guns were left in a state to fire at all, and those few were spiked before the Prussians could enter. Meanwhile, the scene itself, apart from the interest of the struggle, had about it a strange beauty.’ [Edward Dicey, The Schleswig Holstein War, London, 1864]

Sturm_auf_die_Düppeler_Schanze_1864
A German wood cut illustration of Prussian troops storming the fortifications at Dybbøl.

In a vain attempt to retake the position the Danish reserve, the 8th Brigade, was launched in a counter attack at about 10.30am but this was to no avail and a full scale Danish retreat ensued.  The demoralised Danes streamed east to bridges over the Alsen Sound and back into Sønderborg.  At the end of this short and sharp battle the Prussian casualties amounted to 257 killed and about 950 wounded, whilst Danish casualties were 671 dead, 987 wounded and 3,131 prisoners.  This was a decisive victory for the Austro-Prussian forces.  

The war continued on until July 1864 during which time the Prussians and Austrians eventually gained control over the whole of the Jutland peninsula.  At the same time a peace conference was convened in London and managed to broker a short-lived ceasefire in May 1864. Ultimately once the German Confederation troops occupied all of Jutland the Danes were forced to come back to the negotiating table.  The final outcome of the war was a clear victory for the combined armies of Prussia and Austria. The prize for the two countries was control of the duchies of Schleswig and Holstein which was agreed in the Treaty of Vienna, signed on 30 October 1864.

The details of how this war led inexorably to the Austro-Prussian War of 1866 is a story for another day.  Suffice to say that the occupation of the duchies of Schleswig and Holstein by Prussian and Austrian forces was not a comfortable arrangement and enabled the arch manipulator, Bismarck, to engineer the second of the Wars of German Unification, and put in place the next step in the unification process.

For many years this little battle at Dybbøl, and indeed this small war, had been largely overlooked in the military history of Europe.  However, I suspect that the publication in 2015 of an English translation of Tom Buk-Swienty’s excellent book ‘1864: The forgotten war that shaped modern Europe‘ has gone some way renew interest in the subject. In addition the associated, and well produced, 2014 television series ‘1864’, which tells the story of the war through the eyes of some of its participants has also helped to make the story accessible to a wider audience.  I thoroughly recommend both the book and the series, and a trailer for this series is included below.

Today the forts are preserved and a museum has been built in one to tell the story of the  war and its battles.  I have to admit that I have not yet been able to visit but hope to do so at some point.  If there are any readers who have, perhaps you would like to comment below.

Düppeler_schanze_center
Dybbøl Museum and Memorial – ©Arne List

The Siege of Dybbøl, and the final battle to take it, are small in scale when compared to many other battles that dominate the military history of Europe.  However, as the crucial point in the Second Schleswig War, a war which started the process of German Unification and inexorably led to Germany playing a central position in the 20th Century’s bloody history, it deserves to be better known than it is.

From here to modernity: Technology in the American Civil War

The_Monitor_and_Merrimac
‘The Monitor and Merrimack: The First Fight Between Ironclads’ a chromolithograph of the Battle of Hampton Roads, 9 March 1862, produced by Louis Prang & Co. Boston

The American Civil War of 1861 to 1865 is often referred to as the ‘first modern war’. A whole range of reasons are cited to explain how and why this bloody internecine conflict demonstrated its modernity. In this blog I will briefly look at some of these reason before examining, in a little more detail, a couple of specific examples. The latter are both fascinating, and remnants of them remain in existence today for historians and interested visitors to explore.

The claims, and very strong they are in some cases, to the modernity of the American Civil War, principally focus on the emergent technology of the period.  In many cases this war did not see the first use of these technologies, but the wholesale manner in which many were adopted, and the impact they had, was in many in cases revolutionary.

The first and perhaps most obvious of these technologies was the railway, which allowed both the strategic and operational mobility of armies. In 1861 there were some 30,000 miles of railroad in the United States, of which 9,000 were in the newly formed Confederate States.  The military value of these was quickly realised by both sides. In January 1862 the US Congress gave the President sweeping powers to use any piece of railroad for military use by approving the Railways and Telegraph Act.  Shortly afterwards a department of the United States Army called the United States Military Railroads was formed to serve the Army’s needs.  In the South a Railroad Bureau was formed to perform the same function for the Confederacy. However, in line with the suspicion of central government that had created the Confederacy, no form of central control over the railroads was achieved until February 1865 when it was by and large too late to make any difference to the outcome of the War. But both north and south of the Mason-Dixon line railways proved to be a crucial and very modern enabler to military operations.

PUBLISHED by catsmob.com
The rail mounted siege mortar known as the ‘Dictator’, used at the siege of Petersburg during the American Civil War.

Communications also benefitted from modern technology. The use of the telegraph allowed better strategic command and control, although it might be argued that the main impact of the telegraph was to allow increased political interference in the conduct of the war! (To find out more about how Abraham Lincoln used the telegraph I thoroughly recommend Tom Wheeler’s book, Mr Lincoln’s T-Mails, Harper Collins, 2008).

Other technological advances included rifled artillery providing greater range and accuracy of fire.  Combining the mobility offered by the railways and advances in artillery weaponry, siege mortars were mounted on rail flatbeds to give them tactical mobility. Repeating rifles produced increased rates of fire, and telescopic-sighted sniper rifles allowed marksmen to engage and eliminate high value enemy targets at a great distance.  The use of manned balloons was instigated to provide an airborne observation platform for over the horizon visibility. A US Army Balloon Corps was formed to operate them under the leadership of Professor Thaddeus Lowe who had the splendid job title of ‘Chief Aeronaut’. The list goes on and it is easy to see how it can be argued that the American Civil War had all the trappings of a modern industrialised conflict.

Tom Lovell Balloon
Professor Lowe’s Balloon by Tom Lovell

But one must not jump to conclusions, and whilst the technology in some areas of the American Civil War most definitely presaged the industrialised wars of the Twentieth century, there were many aspects of this war that were firmly anchored in the Nineteenth. For example the tactics generally employed would not have been a surprise to those fighting in the armies of Napoleon and Wellington some fifty years earlier – blocks of soldiers marching towards the enemy in choreographed precision, lines of infantry standing fifty paces apart firing muzzle loaded musket and mounted cavalry charges.  Tactical battlefield communications had progressed little since Napoleonic times too. Here the armies still relied on mounted messengers, or a signalling flag system, to pass instruction forward to the fighting troops. Again the list goes on.  At this point I will resist the temptation of straying deeper into a lengthy debate about whether the War was indeed the first modern war. Instead I would like to highlight two particularly interesting, and powerful, examples of the modern aspects of the American Civil War, both of which have anniversaries around this time.

First, 17 February 2016 was the 152nd anniversary of the sinking of the USS Housatonic by the Confederate ship H.L. Hunley, the first manned combat submarine to sink another warship.  The H. L. Hunley, named after her inventor Horace Lawson Hunley, was launched in July 1863, but up until that day in February 1864, her career had been somewhat chequered.

Built in Mobile, Alabama the H.L Hunley was a 40 foot long submarine constructed from old steam boiler plate material.  In August 1863 she was transported by rail to Charleston, South Carolina.   On 29 August 1863, whilst on a training run, she sank killing five members of the crew.  Undaunted she was raised and re-floated only to sink again on 15 October 1863, once again during a training run.  This time all eight of the crew were lost including the submarine’s inventor Horace Hunley.   Determined to make operational use of this new invention she was raised a second time.

CSS Hunley by Mort Kunstler
Mort Kunstler’s picture ‘Final Mission’, showing H.L. Hunley preparing for what was to be its final voyage in Charleston Harbour on 17 February 1864.

On 17 February 1864 she attacked and sank the USS Housatonic whilst it was on blockade duty at the entrance to Charleston Harbour. However, even this success was tinged with tragedy as having successfully completed its mission the Hunley sank with all eight crew members perishing.  Falling to the bottom of sea the Hunley rested there until she was discovered in 1995.  In 2000, after much hard work, the Hunley was raised and is currently undergoing painstaking conservation work at the Warren Lasch Conservation Center in Charleston.  Here she can be visited and looking inside this iron tube it is horrifying to contemplate both the cramped and claustrophobic working conditions of the crew, and to imagine the terror of sinking to a watery death at the bottom of Charleston Harbour.

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The H.L Hunley undergoing conservation (Photo: Friends of the Hunley)

The second anniversary, on 25 February 2016, marks 154 years since the USS Monitor was commissioned. An ironclad warship, the US Navy ordered her in 1861 in direct response to the threat posed by the CSS Virginia, a casemate ironclad ship constructed by the Confederate States from the lower hull and engines of the scuttled USS Merrimack.

Designed by Swedish-American inventor John Ericsson, the USS Monitor was new, and at the time, unique.  She sat low in the water and mounted a twin-gunned revolving turret on the centre of her flat deck.  This turret allowed her to overcome the problem facing warships of the time, which needed to manoeuvre alongside an enemy ship before being able to bring their guns to bear. Instead the Monitor could engage a target from any angle by rotating the turret. Completed in New York in early March 1862 she was immediately sailed to Hampton Roads arriving just in time to take on the CCS Virginia in the first ironclad versus ironclad duel.

This battle, known as the Battle of Hampton Road, took place on 9 March 1862.  The two ships met and traded shots for almost four hours at the end of which, neither side having inflicted fatal damage on each other, both ships returned to port to lick their wounds.  But as they did so they had changed the face of naval warfare forever. Both the offensive and defensive advantages of ironclads were proven.

the-uss-monitor
A photograph of the USS Monitor taken after the Battle of Hampton Roads, 9 March 1862, with the turret showing clear evidence of damage from the action.

Like the H.L Hunley, the Monitor ended her life at the bottom of the sea, sinking off North Carolina’s Outer Banks on 31 December 1862.  She lay undiscovered on the bottom of the Atlantic until 1973. Since then the wreck site has been extensively examined and some artefacts recovered.  The largest of which, the turret and its guns, were eventually raised in 2002.  Today these are undergoing conservation work in the USS Monitor Center at the Mariners’ Museum at Newport News, only a dozen miles from where the famous battle took place.  Considerable work has also been undertaken to preserve the range of smaller artefacts found on board, as well as to identify the crew members whose bodies were found in the wreck, allowing the story of the ship and her complement to be interpreted and explained.

cannons-in-the-turret
The USS Monitor’s turret and guns undergoing early stages of conservation.

Now the jury probably remains out on a definitive answer to whether the American Civil War was indeed the ‘first modern war’. What is clear is that many facets of the war, particularly regarding the technology used, had a modern aspect to them and many clearly signposted the future. Both the H. L. Hunley and the USS Monitor fall into this category.  Both were born out of necessity and both gave a clear indication of things to come.

The H.L. Hunley showed that the threat to warships, and other vessels, could now equally well come from below the ocean waves as from on top.  The one-off success of 1864 alarmingly foreshadowed the dark days of both of the Twentieth Century’s World Wars, when German U-Boat wolfpacks threatened to bring Great Britain to her knees.  Likewise the USS Monitor, and to a degree its rival the CSS Virginia, clearly pointed to a future where iron battleships would rule, indeed a future that was not far off.  Just over forty years after the launch of the USS Monitor, Britain and Germany were in a race to build huge, well-armed and heavily armoured dreadnoughts that would dwarf the USS Monitor. This Anglo-German naval arms race was one of the mosaic of contributing factors that caused the First World War, a war that was brutally modern in every aspect.